Thursday, April 1, 2010

"The Willows." Algernon Blackwood.

Review: Maybe the best ghost story I have ever read. Let’s set the scene:

“After leaving Vienna, and long before you come to Budapest, the Danube enters a region of singular loneliness and desolation, where the waters spread away on all sides, regardless of a main channel, and the country becomes a swamp for miles and miles, covered by a vast sea of low willow bushes.”

“These willows never attain to the dignity of trees. They have no rigid trunks, they remain humble bushes, with rounded tops and soft outline, swaying on slender stems that answer to the least pressure of the wind; supple as grasses, and so continually shifting that they somehow give the impression that the entire plain is moving and alive.”

The narrator and his companion, an “unimaginative” Swede in their canoe venture through this swamp. They camp on an island that is under siege from the flooding Danube, taking away its sand, shortening the dimensions of the island.

Beings from another world inhabit the willows. They are looking for a sacrificial victim. Their presence manifests itself by stealing the rudder, tearing the skin of the canoe and leaving but one  paddle with which to navigate the current. The narrator and Swede feel the presence of these forces, see their indistinct shapes, feel suffocating pressure on the tent, and hear humming sounds in the wind. The Swede, under their spell, tries to commit suicide by drowning, but he is saved by the narrator.

Suddenly, they are released. They feel safe. These supernatural beings have found their sacrificial victim—a drowned peasant.

Comment: The setting of the willows in the swamp and the endless miles of water with rushing current creates a threatening atmosphere and gives a chill that the reader cannot resist. RayS.

Famous Ghost Stories. Ed. Bennett Cerf. New York: The Modern Library. Random House, inc. 1944.

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